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Keweenaw Ethnic Groups
~The Finns~

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Finnish immigration to Michigan’s copper district grew to become the most populous ethnic group with an enduring cultural identity. Kuparisaari, “copper island,” went beyond the Finnish immigrant identification of the island that comprises the northern half of the Keweenaw Peninsula to a symbolic island of landing, an Ellis Island. Michigan’s Copper Country is recognized as focal to Finnish immigration to America, the birthplace of many Finnish-American institutions religious, political and educational. This “island” includes both settlements in growing industrial urban communities like the Quincy, Calumet & Hecla and Champion mining settlements, and cleared forestland for traditional Finnish agriculture as in Toivola, Tapiola, Elo, Pelkie, and Waasa; Finns settled north and south of the Portage Waterway that bisects the peninsula. Perhaps more than any other immigrant group, the Finnish communities in the district were bisected into divisions of politics and faith. The Finns who immigrated to the copper mining district held to a pietistic Laestadian (Apostolic) Lutheran belief, to the state-sanctioned Lutheranism of Finland (Suomi Synod) or rejected faith altogether. Within these divides of conscience of faith was a wide political spectrum: conservative to liberal adherents, resolute temperance advocates and active radical socialists. The social and economic conditions that emigrants left in northern Scandinavia and the Duchy of Finland influenced these allegiances and beliefs.


Hunter in Finnish Costume
Image #: MS042-006-053-569

The Finns who came to the mining district by 1914 had never known a self-governing Finland. Finland functioned subordinate to some six centuries of Swedish governance superceded by Russian imperialism from 1809. From the disenfranchised laborers of Vaasa in the west, the collapsing wood-ship building and tarring industry along the Bothnian coast, and the famines in the north, Finns from the Russian Duchy of Finland and from northernmost Norway and Sweden lived in a cycle of poverty which grew bitterer by the mid-19th century. Famine from 1862 to 1868 was followed by increasing economic and political Russian oppression. Regarding the famine, John Kolehmainen records its severity:

I remember, though a child
When frost stole the harvest.
We suffered hunger then,
There was no food to be blest.
Mother cried until her death,
Father sank, sorrowed,
Tears streaked his furrowed cheeks,
As bread in vain we begged and borrowed (Finn 1).

But failed crops were just one cause of famine and poverty. In the 1890’s, a Russian Prince Kropotkin described the Finnish tenant farmers’ desperate poverty, a poverty from rent and taxes:

He gnaws at his hard-as-stone rye-flour cake which he bakes twice a year; he has with it a morsel of fearfully salted cod and a drink of skimmed milk. How dare I talk to him of American machines (presumably for farming efficiency), when all that he can raise must be sold to pay rent and taxes (Finn 2)?

A small middle class of professionals, prosperous shopkeepers, larger land and industry holders belonged to a long-established Swedish-speaking privileged caste and a smaller still Finnish bourgeoisie, often shunning the language and lifeways of the majority. As late as the mid-19th century, Finns campaigned to make the Finnish language officially co-equal with Swedish, an official recognition that would take much longer to be adopted as the culture of business and government. Meanwhile, Lonnroth and Sibelius preserved and created Finnish cultural traditions with the commitment of the epic Kalevala to paper and the composition of complex lyrical music, respectively (Finn 3).

However, the rise of nationalist Finnish sentiment ran up against an intensified Russian oppression. Since 1878, a law made the young men of the Duchy of Finland eligible for compulsory service in the imperial army and navy. A Russification program of Governor-General Nikolai Bobrikov, appointed by the Czar in 1898, made its boldest incursion with the February Manifesto of 1899 (Finn 4). The Finnish Diet, a body of governance for the Duchy, lost all meaningful power and the “Great Address,” a petition with over half a million signatures to revoke the manifesto, was ignored by the Kremlin (Finn 5).

The overpopulation, poverty, larger number of landless people and uncertainty of employment of southern Ostrobothnia, the region of origin for most emigrants to America from 1867-1892, seems to have formed the primary reasons to uproot and move. During that period, sixteen thousand people emigrated from Ostrobothnia and about fifteen thousand from all the rest of Finland combined (these figures do not include ethnic Finns from Norway and Sweden). Ninety percent of emigrants from Ostrobothnia worked in agriculture and ten percent had other vocations (Finn 6). The development of industry in southernmost Finland shifted the labor opportunities away from rural agriculture. These economic opportunities in industrial centers in Finland and America were in contrast to the brutal upheaval of a population that had nearly doubled during the preceding two generations in northern Finnish regions such as Ostrobothnia and Satakunta (Finn 7). Most sought employment in the growing industries in southern Finland but a small portion would seek opportunities in Michigan’s copper district (Finn 8).

However, it was the Finnish (kvaenar) and Lapp (finnar or saami) émigrés from Norway’s northernmost Finmarken province whose recruitment by the Quincy Mining Company, coinciding with the height of famine in northern Scandinavia, who would be the first to immigrate to the copper district. Adding to 18th century emigrants from Finland to northern Norway, Norwegian officials and English mine managers lured Finns in the 1830’s and 1840’s (Finn 9). These immigrants were almost exclusively followers of Pastor Lars Levi Laestadius (Finn 10). In Norway they would engage in fishing, agriculture and copper mining. Abstinance from drink distinguished these devout Lutherans from many of their Finnish neighbors and may have contributed to the English mine-owners and Norwegian officials’ choice to employ them in the mines and other industries of the sparsely-populated Finnnmarken or Ruija. They joined not only 18th century Finns in Finnmarken but an ancient Lapp (Saami) pattern of wintering their reindeer herds on Norwegian lands and islands of the district.

In 1864, the Quincy Mining Company recruited about 20 Finns and 80 Norwegians to Hancock, Michigan. The Quincy Mine official, Christian Taftes, who spoke Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish fluently and had emigrated from the Tornio Valley, contracted the workers at the English-owned Kaafjord and Alten mines. On May 17, 1865 a sailing ship from Trondheim, Norway departed with 30 more kvaenar (Norwegian Finns) destined for Quincy Mine. Landing in Quebec, a lake steamer brought the all-male workforce into port at Hancock on the eve of Juhanipaiva, St. John’s Day, a Finnish holiday on June 24th (Finn 11). Although between only 700 and 1,000 Norwegian Finns immigrated, they introduced through correspondence with family and friends in Norway, Sweden and Finland the possibilities for relocating in Michigan and in Minnesota. For Michigan’s copper district, the Amerikan Suomilainen Lehti, or the “American Finnish People” newspaper, estimated in 1880 that fully one half of ethnic Finns harkened from Norway and Sweden (Finn 12).

By the 1870’s some 3,000 Finns had left Scandinavia, and from 1880 to 1886 alone, 21,000 emigrated. By about the mid-1880’s, more were emigrating from provinces in the Duchy of Finland itself. From then until 1893, 40,000 more left and in that year alone an additional 9,000 departed, most to the United States. Although the next four years would see a steady rate with 16,000 additional applicants, the year of the February Manifesto’s introduction in 1899 brought a record application for passports, 12,000, a number that would grow to a climax of 23,152 applicants in 1902 (Finn 13). The 1893 to 1920 total number of emigrants was 274,000 people, most prior to 1914 and a small minority being Swedish-Finns.

Although the first Finns arrived in Hancock for Quincy Mining Company employment during the U.S. Civil War, it was the rising star of Calumet & Hecla Mining Company who would begin to offer the greatest opportunities for employment both in the mine and in surrounding business. By 1880, in the mine’s settlement area around the Village of Red Jacket Finns made up approximately one in five residents or 1,800 of 9,000 persons (Finn 14). Finnish-American historical geographer Arne R. Alanen with Suzanna E. Raker made astonishing findings regarding Finnish institutions by this same year:

Despite relatively small numbers, Finnish immigrants quickly established several ethnic institutions in Calumet, the community that emerged as their earliest pesapaikka, or “nesting place,” in America. By 1880 Calumet’s Finns supported a newspaper, two churches, a mutual aid society, a literary society, a printing company, a lending library, a land company and two mining companies. Finns also operated a general store, a watchmaker-shop, nine public saunas, and a saloon in Calumet (Finn 15).

Perhaps most remarkable is the number of institutions that reflect the literacy and value of education to a broad rather than just elite cadre of Finnish immigrants. In addition to the early rise of Finnish-American leadership in many arena’s of public education and the first of what would be many Finnish language newspapers (i.e. Amerikan Suomilainen Lehti published in Calumet) in the 1870’s, the establishment of Suomi College, now Finlandia University, in Hancock in 1896 became the most potent symbol to both the Finnish Lutheran communities. Suomi College was a seminary primarily but by the early 20th century was venturing into broader educational goals. Today Finlandia University’s Finnish American Archives and the Finnish-American Heritage Center’s cultural performances and arts instillations form the hub of the district’s Finnish immigrant consciousness.

Finnish Glee Club
Image #: MTU Neg 02217

The high literacy of Finns came as a surprise to many in America, both immigrant and native born, who presupposed that like their own communities, poverty and illiteracy often went hand-in-hand. Many disparaged the Finns as “Mongolians,” during a time when social-Darwinists had it that Asian, like African, ancestry was a sub-human genus. Oskar J. Larson was a retired U.S. Congressman from Minnesota when he responded to a racist editorial in the Sault Evening News in January 1932. Larson was born in Oulu, Finland in 1871 and brought to Calumet, Michigan in 1875, rising to the elected office of Village of Red Jacket attorney before moving into politics in Minnesota. In Larson’s letter-to-the-editor he recognized the obvious use of the “Mongolian theory” by the editor to denigrate Finnish mental abilities and then stated, “illiteracy in Finland is less than one per cent. It is practically nil. In our own country it is six per cent. In your state of Michigan it is three per cent.” English author Ernest Young states in his 1930’s publication Finland, Land of a Thousand Lakes, “no one who knows anything about the Finns will deny that they are the best educated nation in the world. Neither Germany nor America can claim equality with them in this respect.”

Educated or not, Finnish immigrants often felt the sting of discrimination on a level greater than their European-immigrant neighbors. Many mine managers found the Finns to be resistant to integration and slow to learn English. Local society in general harbored suspicions about the Finns, the politics of some and their unfamiliar customs. A settler from 1887 stated, “the old settlers looked down upon them with the same sort of aversion as the west coast people do on the heathen Chinee (Finn 16).” But ethnic discrimination did not end with such statements of ignorant fear.

Corporate mine management throughout the Lake Superior region noted the Finns disproportionate involvement in radical labor and unionism. In letters to the company President, Agent Charles Lawton blamed Finns for a 1906 strike, which resulted in lost production, increased wages and other financial losses to the company (Finn 17). Calumet & Hecla Mining Co. General Manager James MacNaughton wrote plainly to the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Labor, “we do not want Finlanders (Finn 18).”

The degree to which Finnish immigrants were distrusted and often shunned by mine management and even the communities into which they moved was disproportionately high compared to their immigrant neighbors. Alanen posits that one “unique and often controversial manner” by which Finnish immigrants dealt with the difficulties of life in an industrial society occurred with the change in the loyalties and beliefs of immigrants through the immigration period. The conservative Lutheran orientation of the 19th century immigrant community became augmented by the arrival of radicalized early 20th century Finnish immigrants (Finn 19). Although socialist ideologues were small in number in the district, particularly by comparison to their representation amongst Finnish immigration to Minnesota, they found a place for labor unrest and conflict with management in the Finnish immigrant communities employed in the industrial mines.

In 1913, when the districts most effective work stoppage was organized, Finnish workers played a significant role. For instance, when the workers organized a party for the children of strikers on Christmas Eve at the Italian Hall in the Village of Red Jacket and a false-call of “fire” resulted in the stairwell-trampling and death of 73 people, more than 50 of the deceased had Finnish surnames, a tragic census of labor activism. Alanen and Raker summarize the most controversial Finns who made up a part of the final stage of immigration to the district:

During the major period of immigration an appreciable number of the Finns who had been radicalized by their Czarist homeland, or had been part of Finland’s trade union movement, joined the migration stream. These Finns, at the least, were familiar with the basic tenets of socialism and often expressed a willingness to challenge the prevailing capitalist norms of early twentieth-century America (Finn 20).

Strawberry harvest in Heinola, a Finnish immigrant agricultural community
near Oskar Bay in Houghton County
More information about the photo

Disillusionment with industrial mining for some and the high percentage of Finns who came with an agricultural vocation lead many Finns to choose farming over mining in a district where most immigrants found the poor soil and short growing season unsuitable for the task. The pietistic Laestadian (Apostolic) Lutheran church leaders extolled the virtues of farming. Alanen and Raker note an editorial directed to the largely Laestadian readership of the Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti that farming is the “wisest and most natural kind of work (Finn 21).” Finnish immigrant J. H. Jasberg in Hancock was anxious to sell land to immigrant farmers. He admonished Finnish-immigrant men to make sure they were wed to a healthy, hardworking wife before starting a farm. He also gave a perspective on the opportunities for farming that might have brought rebuke or even smiles to the faces of immigrants from other countries when he stated that the district had a “healthy climate (Finn 22),” amongst other things, for the prospective farmer.

Samuel Mattila came from northern Finland at the age of 16 in 1902, the year of greatest emigration from Finland. A Laestadian Lutheran, he, his four siblings and his parents moved to Cokato, Minnesota. When he moved to Michigan’s Copper Country, he first worked loading copper onto Lake Superior ships. However, his intention was to farm and in 1916 he bought a farm in Toivola, meaning “place of hope,” and married the daughter of one of that Finnish community’s four pioneer families, Laura Johnson. Alanen and Raker state that the saying, Oma tupa, oma lupa, or “One’s own home, ones own freedom,” resonates throughout the Finnish-American communities of North America (Finn 23). And indeed Samuel saved for this freedom. Samuel’s father had been a Lapp reindeer herder, his eye removed by an antler and a thumb missing from an arctic lasso accident in winter. Samuel was old enough when he left arctic Finland to have honed skills for the challenges of far-northern farming. Gordon Mattila describes his father Samuel:

He knew how to snare a partridge or a rabbit using a root of a tree like a fine rope, and how to set fishing weirs. He talked of building a pulka, the sled pulled by reindeer, and of making skis. He knew how to make healing salve out of balsam pitch. He tried to never waste anything and used what he had in sometimes ingenious ways (Finn 24).

The Mattila family’s stories are characteristic of many Finnish pioneers.

In 1920, a friend of Jacob Johnson wrote an epitaph in his memory. The deceased immigrated to Baraga County, founding an agricultural settlement known as Kyro, after his placed of birth in Finland, and later renamed Pelkie.

A strong-looking Finn has just come with his tools and a lunch to the wilderness about ten miles north of Baraga. He has felled his first giant pine where his home will be built. The sun is setting in the west. The man sits on the fallen tree and glances about him. He sees nothing but forest, dense wilderness, all around him. He remembers the farms of Kyro (Finland) with their fields of waving grain and their flower-fragrant meadows. As his thoughts flew back there, a beautiful church, two of them, appeared in his mind’s eye: an ancient one out of an old fairy tale and the other new and modern (Finn 25).

Finnish farms were carved out of the woods, like Jacob Johnson’s and as pioneers in Toivola or Tapiola did, or built where the copper mining industry’s landscape-transforming support industry, logging, left denuded forestland. The east side of Otter Lake, for instance, was settled by Finns on land cleared by French Canadian lumberjacks (Finn 26).

The rural backdrop to the settlements around copper mines is the forest and the farms that Finns, primarily, developed there. But this landscape is not static. The once very traditional, even distinct Finnish-parrish forms, found on kuparisaari are disappearing. Like the Finnish traditions of hearth and home within the once urban settlements of the district, the farms too are transforming. Their distinctive forms, like the lifeways of immigrant descendents, are integrating to new norms, distant from historic practices. Perhaps in this way, the Finnish immigration story to America most parallels European immigration patterns. A pattern of assimilation taught in school, rewarded at work and encouraged by the broader culture operates in tension with family tradition and ethnic institutions.

Further Readings:
Arnold R. Alanen & Suzanna E. Raker, “From Phoenix to Pelkie: Finnish Farm Buildings in the Copper Country,” in New Perspectives on Michigan’s Copper Country, Kim Hoagland, Erik Nordberg and Terry Reynolds, eds., Hancock, Michigan: Quincy Mine Hoist Association, 2007.

Arnold R. Alanen, “Finns and the Corporate Mining Environment of the Lake Superior Region,” Michael G. Karni, ed., Finnish Diaspora II: United States, The Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Toronto, 1981.

Arnold R. Alanen, “The Planning of Company Communities in the Lake Superior Mining Region, “ Journal of the American Planning Association, No. 45, July 1979.

Michael Karni, ed., The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region: New Perspectives, Migration Studies, Turku University, Institute of Migration.

Michael Karni, ed., Finns in North America: Proceedings of Finn Forum III, Migration Studies, Turku University, Institute of Migration.

A. William Hoglund, “Finns,” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, Stephan Thernstrom, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press 1980.

A. William Hoglund, Finnish Immigrants in America, 1880-1920, New York, Arno Press “Scandinavians in America” collection, 1979.

Armas K. E. Holmio, History of the Finns in Michigan, translated by Ellen M. Ryynanen. Edited by Philip P. Mason & Charles K. Hyde, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001.

Ralph J. Jalkanen, ed., The Finns in North America, Michigan State University for Suomi College, Hancock, 1969.

Reino Kero, Migration from Finland to America in the Years between the United States Civil War and the First World War, Turku, Finland, 1974.

Richard Vidutis, “Finnish settlement architecture in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula: Adaptation, evolution and restoration of forms,” Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1991.

Gordon J. Mattila, Stories of the Early Years; The Mattila Farm, Toivola, Michigan, 1904-2004, Atlantic Mine, Mich., Shenanigan Press, 2004.

John I. Kolehmainen, The Finns in America: A Bibliographical Guide to Their History, Hancock, Mich., 1947.

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